Speechless S3E8 Review


When I first saw the press-release synopsis for this ep ("A Christmas tree fire leads Maya to tell a small lie with big consequences"), I thought, 'Sounds an awful lot like the classic Simpsons episode "Miracle on Evergreen Terrace" (s9e10) -- intentional homage, or straight rip-off?' Considering that at least one of the main writers / producers on this show, Danny Chun, also wrote and produced for The Simpsons in 2003-10 -- not to mention that, according to a tweet from one of the other writers, s.2's cartoonish, divisive Halloween ep was intended as a stylistic tribute to the "Treehouse of Horror" specials -- I would lean toward homage here.

Thankfully, and most importantly, I think there's enough variation in this plot that it stands up on its own. Unlike Bart Simpson, who ended up causing a fire when he got up before the rest of his family to open his presents and then lied to them about the tree and all the gifts being stolen, Maya's lie is to the kids about the presents they lost in the fire (including virtual-reality headsets for Ray, movie-editing software for aspiring filmmaker JJ, and a dirt-bike for Dylan) -- I'm guessing most likely rooted in her taking a rare opportunity to see them extra-happy because she feels bad about not being able to give them everything they want due to the family's less-than-ideal economic situation (a feeling Jimmy has expressed in past eps, though he questions her impulsive move here, leading to a hilarious exchange in which he and Maya couch their argument in fake book titles). 

What she didn't count on was Dylan blabbing on the TV news about the (bogus) burned-up gifts, setting off a whole chain-reaction involving the local chapter of Santa's Purpose (which Maya thinks would've been better called Santa's Cause): Representative Candy Kensington (Tricia O'Kelley) visits the DiMeo home to reveal that the charity (as part of its outreach to less-fortunate families) has replaced their gifts; since they can't afford them but are reluctant to give them back, Jimmy and Maya rope Ray and Dylan into a plan to "work off" the gifts by donating their time to the charity's televised Jingle-Thon fundraiser, held at Lafayette High; Candy, moved by the family volunteering to help other needy folks despite their own tragic circumstances, offers to give them all the proceeds, which causes Maya to crack and tell the truth; and later, in a darkly funny little twist, Candy tells the DiMeos that their confession of fraud has proven more valuable than they could've imagined -- apparently, disgust can sometimes be a more powerful motivator than love when it comes to giving.

The TV-news appearance also sets off an amusing side-plot with Ray and Dylan: Though Ray was the one who alerted the rest of the family to the tree fire -- caused by "new" old Christmas lights Jimmy likely nicked from a neighbor's trash (a sly callback to his junk-collecting days early on in s.1, perhaps?) -- by claiming a show called When Clowns Fall Down was on after yelling "fire" didn't work (Maya: "DVR the Clowns, and let's get out of here!"), his interview is edited to make it sound like he's giving family dog Pepper (introduced in s2e10 "S-I-- Silent N-I-- Night") full hero credit for having woken him up with his barking in the first place. (And he's mis-named "Dolph," to boot.) Ray initially vows not to let jealousy get the better of him, but Dylan relishes driving him crazy -- even faking her brother out at one point by making him think she's going to reveal him as the real hero at school, only to bring out Pepper -- and Ray ends up incurring the outrage of the Jingle-Thon crowd when he finally expresses his frustration over all the attention the dog has been getting. 

Meanwhile, the JJ/Kenneth plot from last week's episode gets an immediate follow-up: JJ, having told Principal Miller (Marin Hinkle) of his coaching idea, has her inform Kenneth of the new opening for girls' basketball coach at Lafayette. Kenneth turns down the offer at first, revealing to JJ that his sister Kendall (WNBA AllStar Lisa Leslie) was an even bigger basketball star than him in their youth and that she, along with other sister Kiki (Niecy Nash), would tease his inferior b-ball skills and lack of success. JJ urges Kenneth to make peace with his sisters so he can take the job without feeling like he's just setting himself up for more of their mockery; but tensions quickly come to a head during a visit with the ladies, and Kenneth challenges Kendall to a b-ball showdown at the high school. For all the mean jokes from Kiki and (to a lesser extent) Kendall, this plot turns rather sweet -- not just with JJ encouraging Kenneth not to quit the game and admitting he wanted to leave him with something he can do because he's been worried about him, but also with the Lafayette girls'-basketball team (who have come to the court for after-school practice only to find the Clements siblings' game still going on) being inspired by Kenneth's persistence in the face of failure and even defending him when Kiki makes one more nasty quip about her brother's playing -- and both Nash and Leslie were inspired casting, as they make the most of somewhat one-note roles.

The plots converge nicely when JJ, on his way to bring Kenneth a sports drink, meets his parents and siblings in the hallway while they're leaving the fundraiser (following Maya and Jimmy's confession). When Maya opens up to the kids about why she lied, JJ reassures her that the presents don't matter nearly as much as the fact that they still have each other (having just survived a house fire, after all), which in turn inspires Dylan to sincerely acknowledge Ray's true hero status, and Ray to admit he doesn't care so much what people think anymore (even embracing the family's villainous new role as fraudsters to help Santa's Purpose!).

Fun Facts: Nash and Cedric Yarbrough (Kenneth) co-starred on the Comedy Central series Reno 911! (2003-09); Leslie is a four-time Olympic gold-medal winner (as part of US Women's Basketball team at 1996 Atlanta, 2000 Sydney, 2004 Athens, and 2008 Bejing).

In Three Weeks: "J-A-- JAVIER'S P-A-- PANTS" (airing Jan. 4).

Grade: 8/10. As Christmas episodes for this series go, the lovely and heartwarming "S-I-- Silent N-I-- Night" is still my favorite (and one of my all-time fave eps); but while I found this one plot-wise more of a piece with s1e10  "C-H-O-- Choir" (in which the DiMeos thought their wheelchair van was stolen, only to discover that Maya had forgotten to set the parking brake and it had rolled downhill into a hidden spot near their house... meaning they couldn't keep the new van that other Lafayette parents had given them money to buy), I also found it both funnier and sweeter.

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